Brundtland, Gro Harlem (Norway)

Reference work entry


Doctor and politician, Gro Harlem Brundtland was three times prime minister of Norway between 1981–96 representing the Labour party. The first female Norwegian prime minister, she aimed to appoint an equal number of male and female ministers and set a minimum of 40% for the proportion of Labour party female candidates. Nationally, Brundtland implemented leftwing economic and social policies. Internationally, she championed global health and environment issues, her role leading to her appointment as Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1998. Her international work raised Norway’s profile within the international community.

Early Life

Born on 20 April 1939 in Baerum, Oslo, Brundtland’s father was a doctor and an active member of the Labour party who served as defence minister. Brundtland herself was enrolled in the Labour party’s junior section at the age of seven. Following her father’s career to the US and later to Egypt, Brundtland developed an international outlook from an early age. She studied medicine at Oslo before winning a scholarship to the Harvard School of Public Health. In 1960 she married the leader of the opposition Conservative party, Arne Olav Brundtland. Gaining experience in public health from 1965 she worked for the health ministry, concentrating on children’s health and in 1970 became director for the Oslo children’s health service. In the 1970s her pro-abortion activism raised her public profile.

Brundtland’s early politic activity was spent in local government, but her work for the health ministry led to her appointment as environment minister in 1974, a post she held for 5 years. Concurrently, she was raising her profile within the Labour party and between 1975–81 she was deputy leader. In 1979 she left her ministerial post to concentrate on modernizing the Labour party. In 1981 she ran for the party leadership and once secured, held the position for the next 11 years.

Career Peak

When in 1981 Prime Minister Nordli retired through ill health, Brundtland saw out his term, leading a minority Labour government. At 41 she was the youngest Norwegian leader and its first female prime minister. After 9 months, and with Labour’s defeat by Kåre Willoch’s Conservatives, she left national politics and concentrated on international issues concerning public health and the environment. In 1983 she was invited by the UN to found and lead the World Commission on Environment and Development, termed the Brundtland Commission, which promoted sustainable development. The commission produced the 1987 report Our Common Future, and its work was instrumental in bringing about the 1992 UN Rio Summit on environment. In 1985 she joined the board of the ‘Better World Society’ and also worked on the UN Commission for Disarmament and Security. Her international efforts for health, development and environment brought her recognition and in 1988 she was granted the Third World Foundation prize.

In 1986 Brundtland returned to national politics leading the Labour party to victory. In her second term her appointed cabinet comprised nine men and eight women, creating the most balanced female–male government in Western politics. She also created a 40% minimum rate of female candidature within the Labour party. On a domestic level, Brundtland implemented leftwing social and economic policies, but plummeting global oil prices led to the introduction of austerity measures. In the 1989 elections, Brundtland was defeated by a centre-right coalition led by Jan Peder. Its success was short lived and by the following year Brundtland was again appointed prime minister.

Three years later she was elected for a second consecutive term. She resigned as Labour leader in 1992 and was succeeded by Thorbjørn Jagland. Her international outlook put her in favour of EU membership and she led a strong campaign in the early 1990s. Despite these efforts, Norwegians voted against in a 1994 referendum. In 1996 she retired from national politics.

Later Life

Following her departure from Norwegian politics, Brundtland turned to international politics. Her dedication to the advancement of sustainable development led to her appointment in 1998 as Director-General of WHO, succeeding Hiroshi Nakayima. Her main initiatives were measures against malaria and tuberculosis. She retired in July 2003.

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